Online Courses with
North Branch Nature Center

Nature Now

Online Courses with NBNC


Pursue your naturalist education in a virtual format this spring and summer with Nature Now. Discover, learn and explore the diversity of life near you with a new slate of online courses offered by North Branch Nature Center. Each course, taught by an expert biologist or naturalist, combines online lectures and readings with your own independent study outdoors.

About our Courses

  • Rich content from outstanding teachers and naturalists.
  • Subject matter aligned with the phenology (seasonality) of the northeast.
  • Flexibility to explore course content on your own schedule, with your desired tenacity.
  • Camaraderie in a time of social distancing.
  • Wonder, joy, and discovery in the natural world.

Note: All live components of course bundles are recorded and made available. Courses can be taken independently at any time. For more info, see "Course Format & Timing" above.

Course Format & Timing

Each course spans two months, and comprises four units delivered as content bundles every 2 weeks. Students can engage in the course content at their own pace, and on their own schedule. Each content bundle contains: 

  • A recorded video lecture on the unit topic.
  • Assignments and “field challenges,” to engage in the course content.
  • Readings and resources to dive deeper into the subject matter.
  • A live videoconference session with the instructor to further explore unit materials, hear from guest speakers, answer student questions, or debrief field assignments. These sessions will be recorded for those unable to join live.

Each course contains 7-8 hours of content, excluding assignments and readings.

When can I take the course?

You may take the course alongside an online community during the first two months that the course is offered, or you can take the course independently at any time. Students enrolled in the course during the first two months will have the benefit of accessing live videoconference sessions, but recordings of all live components are made available to all students thereafter.

When does my course start?

If you are enrolled in the course before the launch of the course, you can expect to receive access to the first unit bundle in the first full week of the course.

If you enroll in the course any time after the beginning of the course window, you will receive instructions to access all course materials shortly after registering.

Technology Requirements

To fully participate, students will need a desktop or laptop computer with the ability to download and watch videos. To participate in live sessions, students will need videoconferencing capabilities, such as a computer microphone and webcam (optional), and internet access. Live sessions will use Google Meet as the videoconferencing platform, which is compatible with any web browser except Safari.

Professional Development & Continuing Education Units

All Nature Now courses qualify for 8 Continuing Education Units. A certificate of completion, indicating CEUs and professional development hours are provided upon request following completion of each course.

Financial Aid

We never want money to be a barrier to nature. If you need financial assistance to enroll in our online courses, please contact us at [email protected]


  • Course fees may not be refundable after the first set of course materials have been delivered to students.
  • Full participation in this course requires internet access, and may also require videoconferencing capabilities (Zoom, Google Meets, etc.) (webcam not required). 
  • Course materials are considered the intellectual property of the instructor and/or the instructor's organization, and course materials may not be shared with others.

Ongoing and Upcoming Online Courses

Drawing Nature: scientific illustration & observation to inspire art

Instructed by Rachel Mirus
$75 | October - November 2020

Close observation can inspire wonderful works of imagination. This course will begin with observational drawing, combining careful inquiry with drawing technique to build the keen observation skills foundational for both artists and naturalists. Using example plant and animal groups, we will review growth and body patterns, learning through drawing. We will introduce field sketching, grayscale and color drawing, and watercolor layer technique. The course will culminate with examples and projects in imaginative nature art, launching you into your own nature illustrating journey!

  • Unit 1 will be released October 6.
  • Live meetings via Google Meets will be alternating Tuesdays at 5 pm, beginning October 13. All live meetings are recorded for those unable to attend.
Drawing Nature nautilus RSM

Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1: Artist Eyes: observational drawing

Drawing from nature combines keen visual observation and drawing technique, skills that are foundational for both artists and naturalists. This unit will focus on building strong observational drawing and field sketching skills through a series of exercises working primarily in pencil. We will also discuss work and thought practices that will cultivate our innate creativity.

Unit 2: Patterns in Nature: bodies

Recognizing and anticipating patterns in nature improves the ability of artists and naturalists to interpret their observations. This unit will review the essentials of three common but very different animal body patterns (tetrapods, insects, and cnidarians) as practice for identifying underlying body patterns. We will learn animal body patterns through drawing and will start with simple techniques for adding color to field sketches.

Unit 3: Patterns in Nature: botany

Like the animal kingdom, plant groups show fundamental patterns. This unit will review the essentials of three very different plant growth patterns (ferns, pines, and roses) as example studies in understanding plant diversity and patterning. We will learn plant forms through drawing, introduce watercolor layer technique, and discuss symmetry and imperfection in nature and art. 

Unit 4: Beyond Observation: inspiring imagination

This unit will consider two ways artists have used nature observation to fuel their imagination. First we will look at scientific illustrators who combine paleontological and modern observations to create visualizations of vanished animals. Then we'll explore two artists famous for fantasy nature art. We will try our own versions of each kind of imaginative nature illustration, drawing on previously learned techniques. Before we say goodbye, we will develop personal plans to continue our growth, experimentation, and learning as nature artists!

About the Instructor

Rachel Mirus is a teaching artist and science writer. Her art interests focus on drawing and painting from nature following the traditions of natural history illustration. She has written on subjects ranging from climate change to gene therapy. Originally trained in molecular biology, she has worked in research labs and museums across the country. She has taught at the California Academy of Sciences, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and in Vermont at the Montshire and Fairbanks Museums. Locally, she teaches for MakerSphere, Radiate Art Space, the Waterbury Grange, and leads nature study for the CBMS climbing club. More information can be found on her website: Rachel’s Cybercabinet of Natural Curiosities.

Previous Online Courses (available on-demand any time)

Kingdom Fungi: An Introduction to Ecology & Identification

Instructed by Dave Muska
$75 | Available any time!

The world of fungi is both fascinating and mysterious. Fungi are equipped to succeed in some of the earth’s most unique and challenging environments. They have captivated human imagination and inquiry, and their existence has intimately shaped life on earth. In this class you will be introduced to the ecological roles that fungi play globally and within ecosystems here in the northeast.  We will cover major taxonomies of common mushrooms and the skills necessary for mushroom identification in the field.  Each unit will also spotlight some local and common mushrooms you are sure to run across.

IMG_4201 (1)

Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1 - What’s that? 

We'll start by discussing the historical and scientific understanding of fungi, and acquaint ourselves with the major ecological roles of fungi. You’ll be introduced to common terms used to describe features of mushrooms, and techniques for properly identifying them. 

Unit 2 - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fungi   

We’ll discuss this unique role of fungi and the adaptations that allow for their success as phenomenal decomposers, and their propensity to parasitize other organisms.  We will, of course, have to approach the question, "To Eat or Not to Eat?" and all that entails. 

Unit 3 - Symbiosis and ‘Feel Good’ Factors of Fungi

We'll learn about the intricate and sometimes very specific symbiotic relationships between fungi and other organisms throughout the world. We’ll dive deep into the network of mycorrhizal relationships, how they work, and their significance to virtually life on earth.

Unit 4 - Out of this World and Into Another

We'll explore the curiosities of this kingdom that seem to be right out of science fiction, and investigate the historical and cultural significance of fungi as allies to humans.  We’ll wrap the course up with a look ahead to the future of our relationship with fungi, and we'll prepare you with additional resources for further learning and development in the field of mycology. 

About the Instructor

Dave Muska began his inquiry into the field of mycology nearly 20 years ago when he began foraging for food and medicine.  Dave is a Wilderness Skills Instructor, Naturalist, and Licensed Outdoor Guide and founder of Ondatra Adventures, an endeavor devoted to providing people with a deeper connection to the natural world through educational programs, guided hikes, and excursions. Dave works with children and adults to develop meaningful and personal relationships with the natural world and its fellow organisms and is a Teacher-Naturalist at the North Branch Nature Center.

Bees of the Northeast

Instructed by Spencer Hardy
$75 |
Available any time!

With over 300 species in Vermont, bees are so much more than the source of honey. This course will introduce you to a mindblowing diversity of shapes, sizes, and life histories found in almost any habitat. While most species can only be identified by using a microscope, we will focus on the species and groups that are relatively distinctive to the naked eye. By the end of the course, participants should be able to identify most bees to the genus level, which is certainly not a common skill! Guided field challenges will be based on the flowers and bees currently active. With so little known about the distribution of some of these species, it's definitely possible to find new state records right in your own backyard!

melissoides sp.

Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1 - What is a bee?

It's a simple question that most people can’t answer. The simple explanation is that bees are hymenoptera with branched hairs, but instead of dwelling on the technical details, we will briefly explore each of the 35 genera (in 5 families) found in Vermont. We will also touch on some of the look-alikes that are frequently mistaken for bees. Emphasis will be given to field marks that are visible in photos and gestalt-based identification. Before setting off to explore their local bees, participants will receive several techniques and tips for bee watching with a camera, net, smartphone, binoculars, and the naked eye.

Unit 2 - Bumblebee ID and natural history

Bumblebees are among the charismatic megafauna of the insect world. Large, colorful, and abundant, they are a great gateway into entomology. Vermont’s 17 species are relatively well known and several resources exist to make species level identification possible for newly trained participants. Late July and early August is the peak in both diversity and abundance, so nearly any natural area should yield several species. 

Unit 3 - Cleptoparasites and parasitoids

Everyone loves a good parasite story, and the bee world is full of them! From mind-control flies to cleptoparasitic sweat bees, there are insects in at least 4 different orders that have figured out how to survive off the hard work of pollen-collecting bees. Some of the cleptoparasites are among the world's rarest bees, but others are abundant and easily found once you know what to look for. With patience and a little luck, you might get to see a Thick-headed Fly lay an egg inside a flying bumblebee, or even the mysterious Twisted-wing Insects.

Unit 4 - Pollen specialists and conservation issues

Pollinator conservation may be the hottest biology subject (outside epidemiology) right now, and yet there is a significant disconnect between the public impression of saving the bees, and the reality of what is needed to maintain a diverse and resilient pollinator community. The final unit will focus on both pollen specialists and the needs of the majority of bees that don’t benefit from pollinator gardens.

About the Instructor

Spencer began exploring Vermont as an avid young birder with a strange habit of memorizing field guides. About the time he had figured out gulls and fall warblers, Spencer started working as a field technician on the Vermont Bumblebee Atlas through the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. After 8 seasons of bird and bee field work around the country, Spencer is now the Project Coordinator for the VCE’s Wild Bee Survey, a natural (and challenging) extension of the Bumblebee Atlas. This job sends him all over the state in search of rare bees, with rainy days spent with a microscope trying to figure out what a “densely rugose mesopleura” or a “feebly emarginate labral process” look like.

Butterfly Identification & Ecology

Instructed by Bryan Pfeiffer
$75 | Available any time!

Discover, study, and enjoy butterflies during their peak flight season here in Vermont and beyond. Designed for beginning or advancing lepidopterists, the course will cover butterfly taxonomy, behavior, field techniques (including netting and photography), and classic identification challenges. In addition to assigned online readings and lectures, students will be advised how to locate nearby sites for their own independent observation of butterflies on the wing. Each student will be encouraged to take on an individualized project during the course.


Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1: Being There — Find, Observe, Learn and Enjoy

When the course begins, members of five butterfly families will be on the wing here in Vermont and across New England (as well as the sixth family for students farther south). Your objective will be to find them. Rather than begin with family descriptions and characteristics, which you can begin learning on your own from any field guide, you will instead learn where, when and how to find butterfly generalists (easy) and specialists (tougher). We’ll cover your tools as well, including binoculars, cameras, field guides, and net technique and extraction. And we’ll learn “how to look” at a butterfly in order to determine its identity — and appreciate its rewards.

Unit 2: Being a Butterfly

You cannot know these insects until you know their life cycles and behaviors, which we’ll cover in two short lectures. Our emphasis will be butterfly energy budgeting, basically a day in the life of a male and a female — from emergence to mating to death. Your field explorations during this unit will expand to observe butterfly behaviors, particularly host plant association and mating behaviors. You may even find yourself watching a butterfly lay eggs.

Unit 3: Classic Identification Challenges and Finding Rarities

As you gain experience and confidence in the field, you’ll make progress on locating scarce or rare species and conquering some of the classic identification challenges. Skipper identification will constitute a signification portion of this unit, including the challenges in duskywings (Erynnis) and the gray skippers sometimes knows as “witches” (among them members of the genus Euphyes).

Unit 4: Wrapping Up

Your primary objective will be to conclude the course ready to learn more on your own. Photographers (optional) will gain additional skills during this unit. Interested students can learn to prepare a butterfly specimen. And we’ll cover the resources (mostly online) you’ll use to continue your discovery and enjoyment of these spectacular insects. Students who so desire will have the option to present to the class on their independent studies.

About the Instructor

With net and camera in hand, Bryan Pfeiffer has chased butterflies from tropical forests to above the Arctic Circle. But he shares an equal passion for teaching. For more than three decades, Bryan has offered field seminars and workshops in birds, insects and photography to students of all abilities. As a consulting field entomologist, he has pursued butterflies and dragonflies for state and local governments, the U.S. military, private landowners, and conservation groups. A former faculty member in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Program at the University of Vermont, Bryan was a principal investigator on the Vermont Butterfly Atlas.

Birding Basics

Instructed by Zac Cota
$60 |
Available any time!

Become a better birder! In this class, you’ll develop a breadth of knowledge and skills to better appreciate New England’s common and not-so-common birdlife. Identify species from sight and sound by scrutinizing field marks and decoding birdsong. Understand avian ecology and interpret behavior by exploring a wide range of habitats and natural communities. Whether you are a backyard birdwatcher ready to expand your knowledge, or a passionate naturalist seeking a fun new approach to field ornithology, this course is the perfect primer for better birding.



Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1: Bird Identification by Sight and Song

A focus on methods and techniques for field identification by sight and sound. As we welcome early spring migratory songbirds back to the northeast, we’ll decipher how to use field marks, flight pattern, behavior, and habitat as clues to identification. We’ll also explore different resources available for birders to learn and practice species identification.

Unit 2: Avian Ecology & Bird Behavior

Have you ever wondered why hummingbirds migrate thousands of miles each year, or how a Veery manages to sing in such a lyrically haunting way? In this ornithology primer, we’ll explore structure and function, ecology and evolution. Get ready to uncover the amazing adaptations and wild behaviors of the birds in your own backyard and beyond. 

Unit 3: Life Histories of VT Birds

We’ll explore a cross-section of regional habitats to understand why different bird assemblages live where they do. We’ll explore wetlands, fields, forests, and lakes to understand how various species overcome challenges presented by different ecosystems. We’ll investigate the diets, foraging ecology, and predator-prey relationships of resident birds and discuss the role of migratory stopovers for non-resident birds passing through the area.

Unit 4: Bird Conservation and Citizen Science

We’ll show you how to use the powerful eBird platform to learn about local bird populations, contribute valuable data to science, and keep a record of your own sightings. We’ll discuss several volunteer-driven bird conservation projects happening in our region that you can participate in (The Forest Bird Monitoring Project, the Christmas Bird Count, the Breeding Bird Atlas, and others), and what we’ve learned from these projects so far. We’ll take what we’ve learned so far in this course and direct it towards what you can do to help birds locally and worldwide.

Unit 5: Bird Banding

Assuming that safety allows, you’ll be invited to an in-person extension of this course in July or August to visit NBNC’s research station where staff catches, tags, and releases breeding songbirds to better understand bird survival, distribution and breeding success. This morning is a rare opportunity to explore bird physiology and plumage with up-close specimens, and an immersion in hands-on bird research and conservation.

About the Instructor

Whether it's wading through half frozen swamps in search of salamanders or climbing mountains to find rare and elusive birds, NBNC Teacher-Naturalist Zac Cota is obsessed with discovering the lives of our animal neighbors. Having first started as a citizen scientist before completing undergraduate studies as a field naturalist, he is excited to share his knowledge and enthusiasm for birds and amphibians with just about anyone who will listen.

Wild Harvest: Nature's Grocery

Instructed by Ken Benton
$75 | Available any time!

A bounty of wild foods grows just beyond our front doors – ingredients that hold flavors that cannot be experienced elsewhere.  It can be intimidating to shop at nature’s grocery and rightfully so.  This course seeks to alleviate some of those fears by establishing a sound foundation of identification skills, ethical harvest best practices, unique preparations, and extending the harvest through preservation.  Each week we will focus on different species as they ripen through the spring season.  Some things, however, are best taught in the field with an expert, so we will stay away from plants with potentially dangerous look-alikes.  That being said, there will be plenty of depth to explore with seemingly “simple” plants. 

Media Kit Milkweed

Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1: Foraging Basics: Starter Plants, Safety, and Ethics

It is important to know what you are eatingHere we will get you started with a few safe and easy plants and recipes while practicing the basics of how to go about identifying plants correctly and harvesting them in a sustainable way. We’ll take a look at some invasive species that are a great start for filling our larders while helping the environment.

Unit 2: Preparation, Method, and Taste

Techniques such as creating infusions, smoking with barks, clay baking, and cooking with stones all have different effects on flavor and we’ll learn to utilize these methods to raise our wild cooking game to a new level.

Unit 3: Extending the Harvest: Savor the Flavor

Though many wild edible plants have a short season and shelf life, preservation techniques such as creating powders, compound butters, flavored salts and pickling can have you enjoying your harvest well into winter.  

Unit 4: Extending the Harvest: The Sweeter Side

We’ll close out with a deep dive into concocting wild jams, jellies, syrups, and flavored sugars.  These preservations will then open a floodgate to new desserts and baked goods that will change the way you think about a flower or spruce needle.

About the Instructor

Ken Benton is a NBNC Teacher-Naturalist, forager, and overall outdoorsman with a deeply seeded passion for eating good food.  He has been foraging in earnest for over 10 years and focuses on utilizing wild foods in new and creative ways that excite both the palate and imagination.

Nature Photography

Instructed by Sean Beckett
$75 |
Available any time!

Develop the foundations of a well-rounded nature photographer. We’ll explore composition, artistic technique, exposure, lighting, camera skills, and equipment settings. The perfect course for those curious about f-stops, shutter speeds, and those mysterious buttons on your new camera. Learn how to use your camera to develop a deeper connection with nature, while building the technical skills to dramatically improve your photography.


Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1: The Nature Photographer’s Composition Toolbox

From leading lines to subject placement, thoughtful composition is 90% of a nice photograph. Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, we’ll develop the language for seeing and practicing good composition in nature photography. We’ll analyze the photographs of the masters, and spend some critiquing one another’s work in this unit, and throughout the course.

Unit 2: The Exposure Triangle – Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO demystified.

The exposure triangle is to photographers what scales are to musicians. We’ll learn what these three functions do, and how to adjust them to achieve our artistic goals. With moving objects, bright sunlight, dark shadows, and intricate subjects, a fluent command of our exposure is essential to nature photography. 

Unit 3: Buttons and Dials – The most important buttons and settings

Many of the bells and whistles on your digital camera are important. Many are not. We’ll explore the shortlist of camera controls that you should be familiar with to succeed as a nature photographer, including autofocus modes, metering, white balance, and more.

Unit 4: Tricks of the trade – lighting, macro, telephoto, and more

There is a long list of challenges unique to photographing nature. We’ll cover the most important of these considerations in a series of mini-tutorials on macro, telephoto, image stabilization, tripod usage, and much more. Tutorials will be provided based on the goals expressed by course participants, and paired with field challenges to practice each topic.

About the instructor

Sean is a wildlife photography guide who has been teaching travelers to better photograph birds, bears, bison for over a decade with the World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures. Sean is an artisan at Burlington's Frog Hollow gallery, and regularly teaches courses in photography and photo editing around the region. Sean owns Green Mountain Exposure, and is NBNC's Staff Naturalist and Director of Natural History Programs. 

Amphibian Identification & Life History

Instructed by Zac Cota
$60 | Available any time!

Frogs and salamanders live miraculous lives underwater, underground, and under threat from predators and people. This introductory course will acquaint you with the fascinating amphibians of our woods and wetlands, provide the tools you need to find them, and teach you how to get involved in amphibian conservation. Topics will range from amphibian natural history and ecology, species identification, basic field methods, and conservation.


Course Details (click to expand)

Unit 1 - Natural History & Ecology

While frogs and salamanders are familiar to us, many aspects of their complex lives go unobserved; hidden beneath the surface of the water or below the forest floor. We’ll dive in and unearth the mysterious habits of our amphibian neighbors, from tiny salamanders valiantly defending communal nests to frogs that freeze solid and live to croak again.  

Unit 2 - Northeast Species Identification

When asked, most folks can name a handful of species in our area: American Bullfrog, Eastern Newt, Spotted Salamander. The majority of the 22 amphibians documented in our state remain largely unknown. We’ll cover all of Vermont’s frog and salamander species, learning frog calls, teasing apart egg masses and differentiating minute larvae. 

Unit 3 - Survey & Field Methods

Some amphibians make their presence well known; the din of Spring Peepers is a sure sign of spring for many. Other species are impossible to find without concerted effort and well honed technique. We will learn how to survey a variety of habitats using tools most folks will have ready access to at home. The goal is to prepare students to find amphibians in the field, and we’ll cover everything from data collection to safe handling techniques. 

Unit 4 - Conservation & Citizen Science

Both close to home and around the world, many amphibian populations are declining precipitously. In fact, the global rate of extinction is higher for amphibians than almost any other group of organisms. We’ll confront some sobering truths and learn about incredible efforts to turn the tide of species loss. Students will leave the course inspired and empowered to take action here in Vermont through a variety of citizen science efforts.

About the Instructor

Whether it's wading through half frozen swamps in search of salamanders or climbing mountains to find rare and elusive birds, NBNC Teacher-Naturalist Zac Cota is obsessed with discovering the lives of our animal neighbors. Having first started as a citizen scientist before completing undergraduate studies as a field naturalist, he is excited to share his knowledge and enthusiasm for birds and amphibians with just about anyone who will listen.

Connecting People to the Natural World

North Branch Nature Center

713 Elm Street
Montpelier, Vermont 05602
(802) 229-6206
[email protected]

Office Open Monday-Friday from 9 am to 4 pm
Trails Open 24/7